Thursday, December 27, 2012

On Life and Death: D'var Torah for Parashat 'Vayechi' 5773 by Prof ...

?The many years of grieving over Joseph?s death had transformed into living near his beloved son.? |?News of the death of Joseph ? by?Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow, cc: wikipedia?

In memory of Pinchas Blumenthal

Parshat Vayechi is a parsha of conclusions, of summation, of completion. It completes the personal and family story of Bereshit, preparing us for the acute shift next week from the familial plane to the national, the historic. In doing so it brings to a conclusion the great drama of Jacob?s family, from the birth of his children to immediately following his death, spread across six long, convoluted parashot. Naturally, the parsha also features the deaths of several of the heroes of that drama. The last moments of two of those ? Jacob and Joseph ? are described therein; the moments of Rachel?s death arise as a painful recollection that Jacob has carried the rest of his life, a memory that bursts forth as he prepares to bless the grandchildren that Joseph sired.

Prof. Rabbi Yehoyada Amir

Our tradition sees the deeds of our ancestors as presaging their descendants? later history, a personal narrative expression that directs the reader to the fundamental characteristics of life as the People of Israel and their path in faith and history. Kabbalistic interpretation goes further, viewing the external personal narrative as an expression of an internal divine reality, a description of the divine ?chariot? and the ?sefirot? through which it is expressed. Of course the traditional commentators had no wish to cast doubt on the historicity of the patriarchs and the reliability of the account of their lives and works, but to the same extent it is also clear that this same idea of examining the personal story through the lens of the nation?s subsequent history opens the door to just such a question. If the point of the ancestors? story is an indication of what would be demanded of their descendants; if what is told about them is subject to the weight of a built-in, set didactic-religious agenda, are we not then permitted to ask whether that means the story might not be meant to express, necessarily, historical reality? Might it not be metaphor, rather than flesh-and-blood characters? Obviously modern scholarship reinforces this question and casts the patriarchs as bona fide mythical characters, ancient founding fathers, as it were, embodying in their personalities the paths and statuses of the tribes of Israel who bear their names and are said to be their direct descendants. Modern scholarship portrays them as characters living the national and religious consciousness of the readers of the text ? Jewish and Christian ? and not necessarily or specifically in an actual historical milieu.

From the myth to the concrete

Whatever our opinion or belief regarding this question, there appears to be one fundamental element of the story whose actual historicity is difficult to deny. It is all too evident that the descriptions of the patriarchs? deaths faithfully express a historical fact of life, the way people experienced life and death, the way they treated life and death, the way they placed one next to the other in their emotional and spiritual weltanschauung. Otherwise, how was the story of the founding fathers? lives and deaths written? How could the story be expected to generate believability in the eyes of its readers? How else could the story arouse the spirit and emotions of its readers? Even if we do not know exactly when they were written, how they came together or who wrote them, we can readily believe that they convey something profound and precise regarding the way in which the members of an ancient society, our distant ancestors, encountered their life and death ? their own and their relatives?.

The parsha begins with word of Jacob?s imminent demise, seventeen years after he reaches Egypt. We can assume those were good, joyful years. The terrible rift in the family was healed; the many years of grieving over Joseph?s death had transformed into living near his beloved son. Fear had given way to a peaceful, safe life. And now this episode in life was drawing to a close. Jacob is aware of impending death, and that awareness dictates all of his actions in this parsha. How does he know? The text does not tell us directly, but perhaps that is unnecessary. The narrative simply assumes that at a certain point an aged person knows the end is near.

Cenotaph of Jacob, Cave of the Patriarchs

Cenotaph of Jacob, Cave of the Patriarchs | cc: wikipedia

Joseph is the first to be called to his father?s deathbed, and reasonably so. Joseph is the potentate; it is only proper that Jacob?s will and testament regarding his burial be given first to him. However, after Jacob makes Joseph swear to bury him in the Machpelah Cave in the land of Israel, far from their current habitat, he also seeks to bless Joseph?s sons. And with his son and grandsons present, having seen to his burial arrangements, he recalls the moment of his beloved wife Rachel?s death ? the mother from whom Joseph received precious few years of mothering; the grandmother of the boys awaiting their blessing. ?And I, as I was returning from Padan, Rachel died upon me in the land of Canaan along the road, some distance before Efrata; I buried her there on the road to Efrata, that is, Bethlehem.? (Genesis 48:7). He is not merely recalling how his beloved wife died during childbirth. His whole life since then, he has carried the burden of his failure to bring her to a proper burial in the family tomb. As Rashi comments: ?Even though I am burdening you with carrying me to the land of Canaan, while I did not do so for your mother, who died near Bethlehem.? Now, living under his son?s protection, as he is about to bless her grandsons before his death, and he finally secures Joseph?s commitment to bury him in the family plot, he can only recall the painful memory and confess his decades-old weakness.

?The recognition of approaching death

Whereas in contrast, the prospect of his own imminent death does not seem to move Jacob very much. It is accepted with quietude, a fact that simply demands a certain course of action. Once he warmly blesses Joseph?s sons, who were born before the family reunified, the time comes for him to address all his children. ?Jacob summoned his sons, and said, ?Gather, and I shall tell you what will happen to you at the end of days.?? (49:1). Unlike his words to his grandchildren, Jacob?s address to his sons is not restricted to blessing them; he lays out the future that awaits them and the tribes that will descend from them, making value judgments about his sons? actions. Textual critics, it should be noted, view these passages as a later composition relating to the tribes themselves and their fates, much more than to those ancient mythic figures of Jacob and his sons.

The difficult content of that address is less important to us than the situation under description. The dying man is surrounded by his whole family. Just as Isaac and Ishmael managed to overcome their divisions and bury Abraham together (25:9), and just as Jacob and Esav momentarily reunited to bury their father Isaac (35:29), all of Jacob?s sons unite ? above the rivalries, fights and hatred that marked their lives for such a long time ? and stand around their father?s deathbed. ?Jacob finished commanding his sons; he gathered his feet onto the bed and died, and was collected unto his people? (49:33).

It is difficult to say what is being described in a man ?gathering his feet onto the bed.? It is much easier to understand what is conveyed by being ?gathered unto his people,? who have already lived and died. The reference is not to the Coming World, a concept that the Biblical text does not recognize; the deceased patriarchs continue to exist in the memories of the living, of those who see themselves as the perpetuators of the dynasty, as children following the footsteps of the previous generations.

A moment of pain and grief

The moment of death of a moment of pain and grief. That is expressed in the story by Joseph falling upon his father?s face and crying. Even more important is the treatment of the body. Since this took place in Egypt, it includes embalmment and a mourning period, both for Jacob and later or Joseph, whose death is recounted some verses later. Because the principals are Hebrews of the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the main element of the posthumous care is fulfilling Jacob?s wish to be buried in the Machpelah Cave; for Joseph, such a fulfillment will only occur in the distant future when ?God will surely take note of you and raise you up out of this land into the land that He swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? (50:24). But despite the occurrence of mourning and burial the story does not convey sadness; the sense is not one of loss, but one of a journey coming to an end and the next generations taking up the mission. Those who stood at Jacob?s bedside as he said his last words, whereupon he gathered his feet onto the bed, are ready to face the challenges that tomorrow brings. Thus, at least as the story relates, the people went on with their lives after accompanying the funeral procession. When this story was written, that was how people lived and died; that is how life and death met and kissed.

We have lost much of that ability. With the development of modern society, with the advent of advanced medicine and the dissolution of the extended family, we have lost much of fundamental realization that death is part of life; that true life also means gathering around the deathbeds every now and again. We fear death, try to hide it, bury the dead far away from us, in hospitals, nursing homes, and try not to expose our children to it. There is much blessing in modern medicine and in the medical care facilities we have developed; they add much to our quality of life. But the attempt to conceal death and hide from it, is not just pointless and a lie; it is also dangerous and unethical. It is a lie because death is present in our lives whether we look at it or not. The more we hide it and from it, the more threatening and demonic it becomes. It is unethical because it leads us to leave the dying alone, physically, emotionally and spiritually, at the very moments we are bidden to gather around them, stay with them, listen to their voices and pleas. Death at a ripe old age or premature death ? they both call us to be present when life approaches death, no less than during mourning, once the deceased already lies before us.

Our parsha seeks to teach us this, as well. It seeks to teach us to gather around the dying man while he still lives, when his moments are numbered. It seeks to teach us to listen to the woman on her way to death, to her feelings, her wishes. She requires that we be present, extend a hand, restore the ?kindness and truth? that once upon a time people knew how to provide naturally, automatically. Anyone who can live that way all his life knows that he truly loved, that he paid his debt; such a person can hope that when her time comes, she will find the strength to say quietly and confidently he final words ? and that her loved ones will be there during her last, sacred moments, after which she will gather her feet onto the bed and be gathered unto her mothers.


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